“I’m afraid of leaving my house with my young children because I don’t know how to protect both if them if someone attacked us.” So says a friend of mine – an otherwise confident mother of two.
“It wasn’t the physical altercation that hurt me, it was those words.” That’s another friend who was physically attacked by a man in Sydney’s CBD. He called her a “f—ing terrorist!” among other expletives.
“I just got spat on by some random freak.” And that’s yet another friend who was recently abused while walking in Central Station.
These are the experiences of Australian Muslim women who happen to wear their faith publicly.
In the past few weeks, visible Muslims have been the target of social media vitriol, verbal abuse and physical assaults. Even children are not spared: an Islamic school was targeted by a knife-wielding man.
Incidents of Islamophobia are plainly on the rise but the authorities would tell you otherwise.
Having recently set up Islamophobia Register Australia to collate reports of anti-Muslim sentiments, I have had dealings with members of the NSW Police Force.
A number of officers who have dealt with what the force labels “bias-motivated crimes” have expressed to me their deep frustration and utter dissatisfaction about the lack of funding and the lack of seriousness shown by their superiors in relation to efforts to monitor, report and combat threats and attacks against Australian Muslims. At present there is only one full-time officer working on bias-motivated crimes, along with a policy officer.
This is particularly alarming when bigoted groups such as Australian Defence League, Southern Cross Hammerskins, Blood and Honour Australia and Combat 18, alleged members of which were arrested for shooting at a mosque with a rifle in 2010, are on the rise and increasingly exploiting recent anti-Islamic sentiment.
One officer said he shared my concerns that the existing climate had the potential to lead to another Cronulla-style race riot. He even told me that he was worried that he might one day be summoned before a commission of inquiry to explain why he did not act on his concerns and do more to stop such a riot.
A number of officers have also confirmed what we in the community have been hearing anecdotally: a significant rise in the cases of verbal and physical abuse against Australian Muslims. These officers are genuinely trying to tackle Islamophobia but, with scarce resources, their hands are somewhat tied.
To my knowledge, a large proportion of Islamophobic incidents are unreported due to an alarming level of distrust towards the police among many in the Muslim community.
There also seems to be a strong hesitation by the police to publicly describe attacks against Australian Muslim for what they are: religiously motivated crimes. While it’s understandable that police don’t want to fan the flames of an already tense situation, the same caution and prudence is not shown in either the actions or the rhetoric surrounding suspected cases of terrorism.
The police raids played out like an episode of CSI on our TV screens. We were told that more than 800 officers were required to carry out Operation Appleby, which resulted in only two men being charged. Senator Scott Ludlam on the ABC’s Q&A eloquently asked us to “consider the silence around asylum seekers and the theatre around the terrorism raids”.
Let me make it very clear that I am as concerned as any other sound-minded citizen about an alleged plot to behead a member of the Australian public. After all, I could just as easily fall victim to a group who appear to be attacking anyone who does not pledge allegiance to their twisted ideology.
It’s in everyone’s interests to ensure that we live in a safe and harmonious society, but the approach and the political rhetoric must be proportionate. It’s about time that our politicians realised that they run the risk of playing directly into the hands of those whose activities they wish to curb by perpetuating and feeding the very isolation that feeds radicalisation.
Tony Abbott’s continual use of two or three-word slogans and analogies is an insult to our national intelligence. To borrow his sporting analogy of “Team Australia”: when a captain of a team exhibits poor conduct out on the field, he effectively implicitly sanctions bad behaviour by the rest of his “team”.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Prime Minister Abbott is deliberately peddling xenophobic views to garner electoral support. Consider his mischievous attempt to connect the abandoning of the s18C Racial Discrimination Act changes to the Muslim community, his “Team Australia” rhetoric, his indirectly labelling Australian Muslims as “migrants”, (as a side note, nearly 40 per cent of Australian Muslims were born here), his calling Muslim leaders “foolish” and “petty” for refusing to meet him, his responding to reports of protesters by saying that people came to this country because “they wanted to join us, not to change us” and the recent “burqa box” blunder.
Pulling out the race card and engaging in chest beating about national security has worked wonders for previous governments who have faced an uphill battle in the polls.
This is not to suggest that there is not a real threat, or that our authorities shouldn’t seek to take a strong stance against threats of terrorism. But the response needs to be proportionate and cannot come at the cost of us forgoing basic civil and human rights and demonising an entire faith group. This will inevitably lead to the social cohesion of this nation being irreparably damaged.
In times of crisis, we need to remind ourselves that we are all part of “Team Humanity”.
Despite visibly Muslim women bearing the brunt of rampant Islamophobia, the #WISH (Women In Solidarity with Hijabis) social media campaign (which seeks to counter these anti-Muslim sentiments by encouraging Aussie women to don a hijab as a gesture of solidarity) has reminded us that for every Senator Brandis-endorsed “bigot”, there are countless good Samaritans who offer us all a glimmer of hope.
Mariam Veiszadeh is a lawyer, Welcome to Australia ambassador and founder of Islamophobia Register Australia and the #WISH social media campaign.
Originally published: October 11 2014, Sydney Morning Herald